Behaviour Change and Psychological Governance

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Sch of Geography, Earth & Env Sciences


'Behaviour Change' has become a priority for policy makers, researchers and practitioners in the UK and elsewhere since at least 2004. Behaviour Change initiatives use subtle psychological, spatial or administrative prompts to encourage people to make better decisions concerning their health, happiness, wealth and the environment. Examples include default opt-in to pensions, proposals for presumed consent for organ donation, the use of smart energy meters in people's homes, and the arrangement of carefully designed spaces to facilitate sustainable travel. Drawing on insights from research disciplines such as behavioural economics, neuroscience and psychology, these policies have been subject to recent democratic scrutiny by the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, as well as being the topic of much media commentary, exploring charges of the 'nanny state' and psychological manipulation.

This seminar series aims to investigate as yet unanswered aspects of the debate over Behaviour Change and the use of psychology in techniques of governing. Specifically, we do not know enough about the effects of psychological forms of governance on national populations and specific social groups. Nor do we know what alternatives to Behaviour Change might look like if they were informed by participatory, observational or interpretive social science methods rather than economistic or behavioural science approaches. The seminars will develop a new approach for evaluating the Behaviour Change agenda in its wider context - in relation to how our cultural ideas about the brain, mind, behaviour and self are changing. International and UK based academic participants at a range of career stages from political science, social policy, critical psychology, critical neuroscience, philosophy and human geography will engage with non-academic policy makers and practitioners working on various Behaviour Change initiatives.They will identify the practical, political and research challenges posed by the current policy enthusiasm for particular branches of positive psychology, wellbeing, happiness, flourishing and 'mindfulness'. They will examine two original aspects: (a) the cumulative effect, or unintended consequences of the use of psychology in public policy, and (b) the underlying assumptions and principles on which they are based.

7 seminars will be held over two years at Aberystwyth, Birmingham, Bristol, and Durham, and 1 will be hosted by Collaborative Change social enterprise, Lancashire. The seminars will explore:

- how behavioural science and psychology have changed our ideas about the tools and techniques which are available to policy makers;
- how the public and private spaces we design are influenced by neuroscientific knowledge;
- how psychological approaches have urged us to rethink our conceptions of personhood and culture;
- how such perspectives can be applied in the fields of public health and pro-environmental policies.

One of the seminars will be a dedicated 'summer school' to allow postgraduate students to engage with the research themes in ways more directly related to their own research projects in a more informal setting, but drawing on the experience of Co-Is in this area.

A key objective of the seminar series is to bring theoretical perspectives on the politics and ethics of Behaviour Change together with the more practical demands of actually changing behaviours in order to identify major future challenges facing research on and practice of Behaviour Change.

Outputs from the seminars will be published in academic journals, an edited handbook, as policy briefings and in professional publications. Commentary and papers from the series will be made available through a website and thinkpieces will be provided publically on a blog open to comments. The website will also act as a means of maintaining contact between participants in between the seminars and will outlive the funding.

Planned Impact

Behaviour Change is a significant, topical and controversial issue in the UK (and internationally) with specific implications for changing policy making and the skills and knowledge of civil servants and service providers, as these positions increasingly require awareness of new debates in the psychological and behavioural sciences. The seminars have the potential to increase the effectiveness of public services and policy, change cultures of service delivery amongst private and third sector organisations and increase public engagement with research and societal issues.

There are 3 impact objectives (engage, communicate and disseminate) which involve 8 impact activities: direct engagement with Behaviour Change practitioners and policy makers in the seminars, including one hosted by Collaborative Change social enterprise at a public venue; communication with target audiences through a research blog, website, 2 non-academic professional articles, a research briefing sent to 20 Behaviour Change Organisations, dissemination to a wider interested public through 3 press releases, and 1 research briefing sent to the Campaign for Social Science.

Who will benefit (target audiences)?
(1)Public sector organizations and government departments responsible for the promotion and/or delivery of Behaviour Change initiatives, particularly: the Department of Health, DEFRA, DECC, the Behavioural Insights Team at the Cabinet Office, and divisions of both the Welsh Government and the Scottish Executive who are working on public health or climate change communications;
(2)Third Sector and Social Enterprise organizations delivering Behaviour Change relating to health and the environment, such as: Global Action Plan, Common Cause, National Social Marketing Centre, School Food Trust, Action on Smoking and Health, Collaborative Change, Action for Happiness, MindApples;
(3)Commercial organizations who promote neuromarketing, neuroarchitecture, positive psychology, wellbeing and mindfulness: Positive Psychology UK; The Centre for Confidence and Well-being (Glasgow); Centre of Applied Positive Psychology (Coventry); Positive Psychology Training - the Wellbeing Consultancy (Bristol).
(4)The general public who have an initial interest in Behaviour Change, 'nudge' inspired policies, and changing practices of governance.

How will they benefit?
Non-academic beneficiaries will find the seminar series relevant because speakers and participants will:
(a) identify and communicate the underlying assumptions, methods and politics of Behaviour Change;
(b) draw out commonalities and differences in how Behaviour Change is being rolled out in different domains;
(c) identify and communicate the planned outcomes and, conversely, the unintended consequences of Behaviour Change;
(d) share and encourage understanding of the challenges faced by promoters and practitioners of Behaviour Change initiatives;
(e) supplement the existing theoretical and practical resources available to policymakers and third sector organizations by drawing on insights from theoretical developments in the behavioural and social sciences on the relationship between brains and society, and demonstrating its implications for wider democratic practice.

The seminars will maximize impact by negotiating two extremes characterizing Behaviour Change research. One paradigm remains technocratic and uncritical in its approach to solving the problem of how to change people's behaviours, taking psychological and behavioural science research at face value. The other exaggerates the desire and capacity that generic 'public policy makers' have for manipulating the minds and decisions of citizens. By bringing together non-academic practitioners of Behaviour Change initiatives with critical social scientists, we develop a more nuanced account of the ethics of Behaviour Change and the legitimate forms, techniques and extent of governmental intervention in minds, brains and behaviour.
Description We have developed an international network of scholarship on critical approaches to behaviour change and psychological governance which investigated:
* the political and ethical dimensions of the 'Behaviour Change' agenda in public policy, examining the intersections between the psychological sciences, spaces of governance and state power;
* how particular psychological insights are used and taken up by governments;
* what infrastructures of governing are required in order to mobilise these psychological insights, and to what ends;
* the theoretical and methodological assumptions made in accounts of the brain and mind in behavioural public policy.

We have exchanged knowledge on Behaviour Change with policy makers and practitioners, with the broader intention of involving users in the setting of research priorities for future research.
Exploitation Route The collaboration with Collaborative Change/Considered behaviour change consultancy, which led to a seminar held at the RSA and a co-authored report 'Silver Bullets need a careful aim. Dilemmas in Applying Behavioural Insights' has been shared with Manchester City Council, Behavioural Insights Team, Price Waterhouse Coopers, amongst others. This publication was aimed at public, third and commercial sector audiences and may be used by such organisations in shaping their behaviour change initiatives.

The research led to a collaborative ESRC funded PhD scholarship on 'Nudging Social Tenants in the UK and Netherlands' with partner Collaborative Change (now part of Voicescape, an IT/behavioural insights consultancy who build sustainable tenancies in social housing). This Scholarship began in Oct 2018 and the Doctoral Researcher has been interviewing, meeting with and providing workshops for UK housing associations, Research Users in Social Housing (RUSH) network, and the Behavioural Insights Network Netherlands and Netherlands School of Public Administration to plan future field visits and potential for international knowledge exchange events.

The PI (Pykett) has also been providing advice to Apolitical, a 'global learning platform for government) on the development of CPD training for international civil servants on the ethics of behavioural change, and has contributed to a Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology POSTbrief POST-PB-0033 (Aug 2019).
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Environment,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice,Other

Description Contributor to Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology POST-PB-0033 brief August 2019 Interviewed for WIRED magazine article: Contributor for CPD for international civil servants on ethics of behaviour change through Apolitical (global learning platform for government), in preparation
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Environment,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy,Other
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

Description ESRC DTP Collaborative Studentship 2018
Amount £61,000 (GBP)
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2018 
End 09/2021